Extract of Greatest Military Commanders by Saul David

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Extract of Greatest Military Commanders by Saul David

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Duke of Wellington


‘He never lost a battle,’ noted a recent study of the first Duke of Wellington’s generalship, ‘which is rather more than we can say of Frederick, Napoleon or Lee… [His] political understanding was excellent, his logistics were superb and his intelligence work was magnificent. As a disciplinarian he was legendary, while as a tactician he was unsurpassed. In practically every branch of the military art, it would appear, he was unsurpassed.’
Born the Honourable Arthur Wellesley on 1 May 1769, the son of the first Earl of Mornington, he came from a wealthy and prominent Anglo-Norman family that had lived in Ireland since the 14th Century. Of the earl’s five surviving sons, four were brilliant scholars; the exception was Arthur who did little work during his school years, later describing himself as a ‘dreamy, idle and shy lad’ whose chief love (like his father’s) was playing the violin, though he never came close to his father’s virtuosity.
He did not come from a military family and had no desire to join the army. But his mother and eldest brother Richard, who became the second Earl of Mornington on the death of their father in 1781, thought differently. The countess described her ‘awkward son Arthur’ as ‘food for powder and nothing more’ – in other words cannon-fodder.
Unable to buy a commission for Arthur, they eventually used their connections to obtain one for free. And in the meantime they sent him to the Royal Academy of Equitation at Angers in France where, for two centuries, the ruling classes of Europe had learnt the art of horsemanship, fencing, mathematics and the humanities. An initially unenthusiastic Arthur thrived, learning French, becoming an expert (if not a graceful) rider, and gaining in both self-confidence and stature. ‘I do believe,’ his mother explained on seeing the taller, smarter version of her son in late 1786, ‘there is my ugly boy Arthur.’
In March 1787, shortly before his 18th birthday, Arthur was gazetted an ensign in the 73rd (Highland) Regiment of Foot. He later told a friend that it was not a career he would have chosen, but ‘since I have undertaken a profession I had better try to understand it’. In truth, he spent most of the first six years of his military service trying to avoid soldiering, serving instead as aide-de-camp to the lord lieutenant of Ireland (a friend of his brother Richard’s), and regularly swapping regiments (he went through six in five years) to secure promotion and avoid service abroad.
It was not until the outbreak of Britain’s war with revolutionary France in 1793 – following the French Revolution, the establishment of the 1st French Republic and the execution of former King Louis XVI – that Wellesley was forced to take his soldiering more seriously. He began by burning his violins and persuading his brother Richard to buy him successive promotions in the 33rd (West Riding) Regiment of Foot. He thus became, at the age of twenty-four, the lieutenant-colonel of an infantry corps of 500 men. Wholly unqualified as he was for such a responsibility, he worked hard to master the internal workings of the battalion, ‘immersing himself in the minutiae of its accounts and preparing standing orders that became a model of their kind’. But it says everything about the parlous state of the army in 1793 and the importance of connections that he had gained the command of a battalion without any formal training.
In June 1794 he sailed with the 33rd from Cork to Ostend as part of a division sent to reinforce the Duke of York’s battered army in Flanders. It was not a propitious moment for Wellesley to go to war. He and his men were poorly trained, there was no adequate food supply, and the Allies were in retreat. In mid-September, near Breda in Holland, he received his baptism of fire when his battalion helped to check a French attack, an action for which the Duke of York commended the 33rd for its ‘good conduct’. The praise was deserved as the battalion had coolly obeyed Wellesley’s orders to hold its fire until the French column – a solid formation of up to a thousand men – was almost upon it; thus, from the time of his first action, Wellesley was convinced of the superiority that a line formation had over a column.
After a chaotic retreat through Belgium the army was eventually evacuated from the German port of Bremen in the spring of 1795, having lost 6,000 of its 21,000 men, most to disease and cold. Yet, as Wellesley told a friend many years later, the lessons of the campaign were useful: ‘Why – I learnt what one ought not to do, and that is always something.’
For a time, Wellesley resumed his duties as an Irish MP and aide to the lord lieutenant, and lobbied for a permanent place in the Irish government. But nothing suitable was offered and, with his political hopes dashed, he turned his mind back to soldiering. In early 1796, the recently promoted Colonel Wellesley and his battalion were posted to the West Indies where, had they arrived, many would have perished of a tropical fever. But a violent, and ultimately propitious, storm blew the battalion’s transports back to port, and when it resumed its voyage the posting had been changed to India.
Wellesley helped to pass these many months at sea by reading several works of military history, including Julius Caesar’s Commentaries (in Latin), fifteen volumes on Frederick the Great and Major-General Henry Lloyd’s Reflections on the Principles of the Art of War. His library also included works by Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke and Adam Smith, and, for lighter reading, ten volumes of Louvet de Couvray’s erotic Les Aventures du Chevalier de Faublas.
Wellesley finally reached Calcutta in February1797. But it was not until the arrival of his brother Mornington as the new governor-general of India, in May 1798, that Wellesley’s military career began to prosper. This was chiefly because Mornington (later the first Marquess Wellesley) had arrived in India with a fixed determination to expand British rule – partly for the benefit of British trade, and partly to deny other European powers, particularly France, the chance to re-establish their own influence in the region. By the end of Mornington’s seven-year term of office, British India had expanded from a third to a half of the subcontinent; and no soldier played a more prominent role than Arthur Wellesley.
During the first of Mornington’s conflicts – against Tipu Sultan, the pro-French Muslim ruler of Mysore in southern India in 1799 – Wellesley displayed a mastery of logistics that would become his trademark. Aware that the invading Anglo-Indian army had to cross more than 250 miles of jungle and hill terrain to reach the Mysorean capital of Seringapatam, and would not be able to live off the land, he encouraged merchants to bring in their produce from a wide area, and arranged for them to accompany the columns. He also assembled a siege train of heavy artillery, with 1,200 rounds a gun, for the final assault; and he drilled the battalions in brigade formation with live firing exercises. So impressed was the commander of the invading force, Lieutenant-General Sir George Harris, that he congratulated Wellesley in a general order for bringing the invasion force to such an admirable state of organization and discipline.
But the war in general, and the siege of Tipu’s capital in particular, was not Wellesley’s finest hour. A preliminary assault by Wellesley’s 33rd Foot on an enemy outpost was poorly planned – Wellesley did not even bother to reconnoitre – and ended in ignominious flight. This was one of the few reverses of Wellesley’s military career and its lesson stayed with him. Never again, he told his brother, would he ‘suffer an attack to be made by night upon an enemy who is…strongly posted, and whose posts have not been reconnoitred by daylight’. It was a blunder that would probably have ended the career of a less well-connected officer; as it was, Wellesley was denied a proper share of the laurels the army would receive for storming Seringapatam, on 4 May 1799, because he had been given command of the reserve which was not called into action.
Wellesley’s chance for redemption came in 1803 when war broke out between the British and the Hindu princes of the Maratha Confederacy. Anticipating a conflict, Wellesley had made a detailed study of the terrain and the supplies needed to cross it. They included, in his estimation, 90,000 lb. of salted meat, ‘packed in kegs well fortified, 54 lb. in each keg, besides pickle, etc; and the same quantity of biscuits in round baskets, containing 60 lb. each’.
On 23 September, having already captured the hill fortress of Ahmednuggur, Wellesley stumbled upon the main Maratha army in a strong position near the village of Assaye, in central India, its front protected by the River Kaitna. Though outnumbered by at least seven to one – the enemy had 50,000 men and 128 guns to his 7,000 and 22 guns, and of that 7,000 only 1,800 were British – he chose to attack because he believed aggression was the only way to defeat a numerically superior Indian foe. He later acknowledged the risk he was taking when he described the attack as ‘certainly a most desperate one’.
With a frontal attack ruled out by the steep-sided River Kaitna and its two heavily defended fords, he hoped to turn the enemy’s left flank by crossing the river close to its junction with the Juah. The plan was almost scuppered when his guides insisted there was no ford in the vicinity. But, as he surveyed the area through his spyglass, he spotted two villages on either side of the river and came to the obvious conclusion that they had been built near a ford. He wrote later:

I was right. I found a passage, crossed my army over, had no more to fear from the enemy’s cloud of cavalry, and my army, small as it was, was just enough to fill the space between the two streams, so that my flanks were secure.

Wellesley had intended to outflank the Marathas’ line by marching his right wing past Assaye. But the enemy’s well-drilled change of front – made possible by years of French-supervised training – made him alter his point of attack away from Assaye, which was well defended and bristling with cannon, to his left wing near the River Kaitna. He instructed Lieutenant-Colonel William Orrock, commanding the picquets on the right, not to stray too close to the village. But for some reason Orrock ignored the order and attacked Assaye with his picquets and support from the 74th Foot. ‘There was a large break in our line,’ recalled Wellesley, ‘between these corps and those on our left. They were exposed to a most terrible cannonade from Assaye, and were charged by the [enemy] cavalry.’
For a time, thanks to Orrock’s incompetence, the battle hung in the balance. If the main attack on the left had also been repulsed, Wellesley and his small army would have been doomed. But though the Marathas in that sector fought well and inflicted many casualties, they could not hold their line.
The Maratha centre eventually reformed a little further back on the Juah, from where they repulsed a charge by the British cavalry, killing the colonel of the 19th Light Dragoons in the process. But already the Maratha horse had left the field and, with the 78th Highlanders moving up to attack, the infantry fled across the Juah, leaving the ‘whole country strewn with killed and wounded, both European and natives, ours as well as the enemy’s’. Among the weapons abandoned by the Marathas were more than 90 cannon.
Appalled by the carnage, and no doubt shocked by how close he had come to disaster, Wellesley sank to the ground and sat with his head between his knees. His small army of 7,000 had suffered a crippling 1,584 casualties, 650 of them British; the enemy dead and wounded were more than 6,000. ‘I should not like to see again such loss as I sustained on the 23rd September,’ he wrote a month later, ‘even if attended by such a gain.’
That night he would have a recurring nightmare that all his men had been killed. When asked, years later, what was the ‘best thing’ he ever did in the way of fighting, he replied with one word: ‘Assaye.’ He knew he had taken a fearful risk and only narrowly come through it. During the fighting, one charger was killed under him and another piked. Yet, when faced with each new setback, he had refused to panic. ‘I never saw a man so cool and collected as he was,’ wrote Colin Campbell of the 78th, ‘though I can assure you, till our troops got the orders to advance the fate of the day seemed doubtful.’
Wellesley followed up Assaye with another hard fought victory at Argaum where again – very much in the style of Frederick the Great’s celebrated ‘oblique order’ – he brought up his troops in echelon to one flank and was ‘able to concentrate a powerful spearhead against a single point in the opposing line’. He eventually returned to Britain in March 1805 with a knighthood, the local rank of major general and a fortune of £42,000 – chiefly his share of prize money – that made him ‘independent of all office or employment’.
In a tactical sense, India taught Wellesley that aggression and risk were the keys to winning battles. He would learn soon enough that veteran French troops did not buckle quite as easily as Indian sepoys, and would have to adapt his tactics accordingly. But one area of his Indian experience required no fine-tuning, and that was his expertise in matters of logistics. ‘He was a logistician par excellence,’ wrote a recent biographer, ‘and he repeatedly overturned accepted wisdoms by the speed with which he could bring together a moving bazaar – actually a sort of free-enterprise “rolling magazine” – to keep his forces fed while they operated far from their base.’
Once back in England, Wellesley was not best pleased to be given a minor command on the south coast. So he turned his attention back to politics and entered government for the first time in March 1807 as chief secretary for Ireland in the Duke of Portland’s new Tory administration. But word soon reached him in Dublin that the government was planning an expedition to Copenhagen to seize the Danish fleet, lest if fall into French hands, and he at once volunteered. He commanded only a brigade, but still won the lion’s share of the laurels by defeating an attempt by a numerically superior Danish force to raise the siege of Copenhagen at Köge on 26 August. Just over a week later the city surrendered and the powerful Danish fleet was safely in British hands.
In July 1808, by then a lieutenant-general, Wellesley led 15,000 men to the Iberian peninsular to support Spanish and Portuguese rebellions against French rule. Shortly before his departure, he confided his hopes and fears to his friend, the MP and diarist John Wilson Croker:

[The French] may overwhelm me, but I don’t think they will out-manoeuvre me. First, because I am not afraid of them, as everybody else seems to be; and secondly, because if what I hear of their system of manoeuvre, is true, I think it a false one as against steady troops. I suspect all the continental armies were more than half beaten before the battle was begun – I, at least, will not be frightened beforehand.

He was as good as his word. Having landed at Mondego Bay, Portugal, in early August 1808, Wellesley defeated the French general Junot in the battles of Roliça and Vimeiro. The latter engagement saw the first use of what became his trademark defensive tactic: placing the main body of his troops behind a ridge line to protect them from artillery, and putting light infantry and riflemen on the forward slopes to counter the tirailleurs that led French attacks. Unlike the French, who tended to concentrate their artillery in grand batteries, Wellesley spread his guns along his front to hamper the enemy approach.
The favoured French infantry tactic was to use the more manoeuvrable column to approach an enemy position, and then deploy it into line for greater firepower if they met stubborn resistance. But, like Marlborough and Wolfe before him, Wellesley had the answer to this. His infantry battalions were drawn up in two ranks and, before the French could form line, would fire a close-range rolling volley, company by company, into the head and flanks of the column. Then they would let out a great cheer and charge the enemy with fixed bayonets. At Vimeiro this tactic worked to perfection. Wellesley had won the first significant British land victory over French troops in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, and in the process destroyed the aura of invincibility that the French Army had possessed since Bonaparte’s success at Marengo in 1800.
But Wellesley was unable to follow up this success because, even before the battle, he had received word that the army in Portugal was about to be doubled in size, causing him to be superseded by two more senior lieutenant-generals, Hew Dalrymple and Harry Burrard. Between them they concluded a peace treaty with Junot, known as the Convention of Cintra, that included the clause that all French troops in Portugal would be shipped home by the Royal Navy, and would take with them ‘their arms and baggage, with their personal property of every kind’ (which, in practice, meant booty that included a Bible from the royal library and two carriages belonging to the Duke of Sussex). When these overly generous terms were published in the London Gazette on 16 September they provoked an outcry. Portland, the prime minister, thought them so disadvantageous that it was hard to believe any English officer ‘could have sanctioned them’.
All three lieutenant-generals were recalled from Portugal in semi-disgrace, leaving Sir John Moore to take command of the expanded army. But Moore overreached himself by advancing too deeply into Spain and, pursued for a time by Napoleon himself, was forced to retreat through the mountains in the height of winter to the port of Corunna in northwest Spain. Moore was killed in the victorious battle outside the port on 16 January 1809 that enabled the surviving 28,000 men of his army – including around 6,000 sick and wounded – to escape onto waiting ships.
Two months after Moore’s death, Wellesley urged Lord Castlereagh, the War Secretary, not to abandon the Iberians. ‘I have,’ he wrote, ‘always been of opinion that Portugal might be defended whatever the result of the contest in Spain.’ But to do so, he added, would require a British force of 30,000 men, including 4,000 cavalry; a Portuguese Army restructured under British command; and a concerted effort by the Spaniards to keep at least some of the French pinned down in their country.
Castlereagh was persuaded and, thanks to his strong advocacy, so were his Cabinet colleagues. Wellesley’s instructions were to consider the defence of Portugal ‘as the first and most immediate object of your attention’. He was to use his discretion on when and how to cooperate with the Spanish, but only after receiving the sanction of the British government.
This suited Wellesley. Having studied the Corunna campaign in detail, he had come to the conclusion that the Spanish armies were too disorganized, and the British too few in number, to take on the French in open battle on the great plains of the Peninsula. He felt, on the other hand, that the rugged mountainous terrain, especially in Portugal, offered good opportunities for defence. He thus conceived what he would later describe as his ‘cautious system’, building up British troop strength in Portugal, nurturing the infant Portuguese Army and striking at the French from a secure base. The war, he believed, would be ended not by a single brilliant campaign but by a long process of attrition.
The next three years proved that Wellesley was right to be cautious, as hard fought defensive victories at Talavera (1809), Busaco (1810) and Fuentes de Onoro (1811) were followed by strategic withdrawals. Even after the great encounter victory of Salamanca in July 1812, one of the finest of his career, he overreached himself by laying siege to Burgos and, once again, had to withdraw back to the Portuguese border with French armies in pursuit.
For his victory at Talavera, Wellesley was ennobled as Viscount Wellington (a title chosen for him by his younger brother William because the Somerset town of Wellington was near a village called Welleslie.) He became the Earl of Wellington after the capture of the fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo in January 1812, a marquess after Salamanca, and was made a field marshal – a new rank created especially for him – after arguably his greatest victory, at Vitoria in August 1813.
The Vitoria campaign was arguably the finest of his career. In just two months he had comprehensively out-generalled both King Joseph and Marshal Jourdan, driving the bulk of French troops in Spain to the very borders of France where, outside the town of Vitoria, he inflicted another stinging defeat. Not that victory had come cheap. He lost almost 5,000 men; the French 7,000, all but two of 153 guns and all of their baggage. But this time Wellington’s success on the field of battle would not be followed by a strategic retreat. The French had no more reinforcements to send to Spain and defeat at Vitoria marked the end of Napoleon’s long, costly and ultimately futile campaign to conquer the Iberian Peninsula.
By the time Napoleon abdicated in April 1814 – he had been on the back foot since his disastrous invasion of Russia two years earlier – Wellington had invaded France and captured Toulouse. He was rewarded with a dukedom and appointed the British ambassador in Paris.
The Battle of Waterloo, fought near Brussels on 18 June 1815 after Napoleon had escaped from exile and returned to power, is generally thought of as Wellington’s crowning glory, an affirmation that he and not his opponent was the finest general of his era. But in some ways it was one of his least convincing victories.
In his dispatch of the battle, written in the early hours of 19 June, Wellington attributed the ‘successful result of this arduous day to the cordial and timely assistance’ he had received from Marshal Blücher and the Prussians. Later that morning he wrote to his brother William: ‘You’ll see the account of our desperate battle and victory over Boney!! It was the most desperate business I ever was in; I never took so much trouble about any battle; and never was so near being beat. Our loss is immense particularly in that best of all instruments British Infantry. I never saw the Infantry behave so well.’
Within these two documents – written while Wellington’s memory was at its freshest – lies the essential truth of the battle: that he almost lost it, and certainly would have done but for two crucial factors – the timely arrival of the Prussians; and the fighting quality of his British redcoats, who, time and again, plugged gaps in his line and pushed the French back. Many historians regard the first point as irrelevant, insisting that Wellington fought at Waterloo only because he knew the Prussians would come to his assistance. That may be true. But when we come to assess Wellington’s skill as a general, it is hard to see the Waterloo campaign in general, and the final battle in particular, as strong evidence of his military genius.
Yes, he was up against the finest captain of his era, and one of the greatest of all time; but had Napoleon and his marshals been on form they would surely have taken advantage of Wellington’s many errors. The first and most serious was strategic. Wellington had concentrated his polyglot army of 114,000 men, only a third of whom were British, in and around Brussels; while the slightly larger Prussian army of his ally, Marshal Blücher, was stationed on his left. But so convinced was Wellington that Napoleon was planning to cut off his retreat from the Channel ports by advancing along the Mons axis, he ignored all the intelligence reaching him in Brussels prior to and during 15 June that the main French attack would be against the junction of the two Allied armies in the vicinity of Charleroi. Only by 10 p.m. on 15 June did he finally accept the truth and order his troops to move towards the pre-arranged concentration point at Quatre Bras. But they had to wait for daylight to advance, and by then it was too late to assist the Prussians who had to face the main French attack at Ligny on the 16th alone. Wellington acknowledged this error, shortly after midnight on 15 June, when he remarked to the Duke of Richmond: ‘Napoleon has humbugged me, by God! He has gained twenty-four hours on me.’
This error allowed Napoleon to drive a wedge between the two Allied armies, and gave him the opportunity to defeat them one by one; but for Marshal Ney’s interference on the 16 June, recalling d’Erlon’s corps in defiance of the Napoleon’s express orders, the Prussian army would have been destroyed at Ligny and Napoleon free to turn on Wellington without fear of interruption. As it was the Prussians were forced to retreat towards Wavre and away from Wellington.
There were further opportunities: for Napoleon to strike a decisive blow against Wellington at Quatre Bras in the morning of the 17th (when, for some reason, the duke delayed his withdrawal back to Waterloo until mid-morning); and for Grouchy to prevent the Prussians from reaching Waterloo on the 18th. But neither was taken. ‘The plain truth,’ wrote Frank McLynn, ‘seems to be that Napoleon performed far below his best form, and that something happened to his martial talents in general during the lacklustre four-day Belgian campaign.’ And yet, by Wellington’s own admission, the emperor almost pulled off an unlikely victory at Waterloo, fighting uphill against a general who was an acknowledged master of the defensive battle.
There is no doubt that Wellington performed well at Waterloo by criss-crossing the battlefield, inspiring his troops and moving reserves to threatened sectors. But if he had had to fight the whole battle against an evenly matched opponent – in other words without the support of the Prussians – this might not have been enough. His decision to leave 17,000 valuable troops at Hal and Tubize – again because he believed Napoleon would try an outflanking manoeuvre – was yet another error that, fortunately for him, he was not made to pay for because the Prussians reached Waterloo in the nick of time.
At the time the British public were unaware of these near fatal errors, and Wellington made strenuous efforts to keep it that way. His reward for helping to save Europe from Napoleon was the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order – the Prince Regent had no other honours left to give him – while a grateful King William I of the Netherlands made him the Prince of Waterloo.
It was Wellington’s last battle. He would devote most of the remaining thirty-seven years of his long and illustrious career as a public servant to politics and military administration, reaching the pinnacle of both as prime minister (1828-30, and again briefly in 1834) and commander-in-chief of the British Army (1827-8 and 1842-52). His time in office was not particularly successful, as Wellington’s natural conservatism had little sympathy with the growing public clamour for political, social and military reform.
The most balanced recent assessment of Wellington as a commander was by the historian Paddy Griffith: ‘He reached his ultimate stature as a general only through a lengthy and often painful process of trial and error. His rise to the final glory was by no means uninterrupted or free from acrimony, and although he certainly did not lose any battle along the way, it is scarcely correct to claim that he was victorious in every campaign. His achievement was not that he was infallible, but rather that he knew how to weather his mistakes and make the best out of a bad job.’

Extract of Greatest Military Commanders by Saul David Published 26th January 2012 available in kindle format £3.99.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Great-Military- ... 52&sr=8-17

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